It’s International Mother Language Day ! This day was first announced by UNESCO on November 17, 1999 and is celebrated every year on the 21st of February. The main purpose of celebrating this day is to promote the awareness of language and cultural diversity all across the world.
Why is it called Mother Language or Mother Tongue? Well because the mother usually spends more time with a child during their formative years and as a result it is the language a mother speaks that the child usually learns. You may be asking what’s the big deal about speaking one’s mother tongue after all most of local languages are only spoken by Nigerians but the truth is that research has shown there are a lot of benefits for children who speak several languages whether mother tongue or foreign languages. Below I share a few benefits as well as a few tips to help your children acquire that skill.
It aids cognitive development
Many multi-lingual children mix up languages at first so it’s not uncommon to hear them make funny sentences where they mix all the languages they are acquiring. I remember a cousin saying to me “e be like na uguru” (it seems to be harmattan) as she mixed pidgin English and Igbo or another cousin who mixed Igbo , Yoruba and English as her Mum spoke all three. However this is not a disadvantage at all but rather advantageous as in no time their brains develop and as they differentiate the languages they are soon able to think simultaneously in those languages. This is why children who’s brains are still developing are able to learn multiple languages faster than adults who usually have to translate back to their major language. When someone learns multiple languages early their brains work at an amazing speed to separate these languages when thinking or speaking. Due to this increased cognitive skill multilingual kids are natural problem solvers, have increased executive function and are able to multi-task more seamlessly.
Increased cultural awareness and belonging
Here I am referring to your child’s own culture. The truth is that your child will have a greater sense of connection to her roots if she can speak her mother tongue. It is so much easier to retain ones culture when important elements such as language are spoken.
Increased cultural intelligence, acceptance and tolerance
Here I am referring to other languages and not necessarily one’s mother tongue. Children who speak more than one language are usually able to appreciate aspects of culture faster than their monolingual peers. This is because language is a major part of any culture and once you speak a language you are able to observe that culture in a more inclusive and direct way. Therefore the more you are exposed to different languages the more you develop compassion, tolerance and empathy for different people. For example my knowledge of Yoruba has helped me enjoy and appreciate the Yoruba culture more than people who do not understand or speak the language.
Increased Employability and career options
The truth is that speaking multiple languages gives one a clear advantage employment wise especially in the Multinational sector. This holds true for International jobs as well as for jobs in rural areas (actually some international jobs in the development sector may require you to work in rural areas). There are many jobs I have tried to apply for where they have requested for someone who can fluently speak French or several local languages. Also, if your child has a future in politics especially local representation speaking your local dialect is very important.
Better learning, retention and listening skills
Remember the point on cognitive development? This means that children who are multilingual are able to grasp new concepts easily and have higher memory retention and listening skills. This is because they have an ear for unfamilair words and these new words and sounds stimulate the brain and increase its ability to memorise. This is especially helpful with STEM subjects.
Increased bond with more people across generations.
While nowadays most grandparents speak English, there was a time when many of our grandparents only spoke our mother tongue. When you do not speak the same language with your grandparents or other relatives it is difficult to bond . Therefore, speaking the same language helps bonding across generations, class and such children stay close to their extended families.
Lets admit it most of us find it pretty cool when a person can converse or understand several languages. Even if it’s just “market vernacular” you speak i.e ego one , elo ni etc it can help you get a good bargain. When you speak a language fluently it even breaks down barriers and grants you access that money can not buy. This was the case with Mary Slessor who learnt the local languages when she served in Calabar and won the hearts of all around her.
The benefits are many but the ones listed above are just few. While some people such as polyglots* are really good with languages and grasp them in no time others struggle, however everyone has the capacity to speak at least another language especially when they are young. You may ask how do I help my child learn my mother tongue or any other language, especially if I am not fluent myself? Here are a few tips below;
•Hire a babysitter or Nanny who is fluent in the language you want them to speak. This is something I have done and it helps especially when the Nanny is older or not fluent in English as the children will easily pick what they hear. If you have an older relative that speaks your language then frequent visits will also help a whole deal. I stress about the person’s age because younger people are usually trying to learn English and will hardly speak their native language around or with your children.
•Get a language tutor. There are quite a few who teach different languages, just search online and you will find. This is especially useful when the parent is not fluent in the language they want their child to learn.
•Get their favourite TV shows in the language or languages you want them to learn. Bino and Fino have a series in Nigerian languages while you can also find some popular cartoons dubbed into different languages. African Magic also has some great content on their indigenous channels, just make sure the movies or shows are age appropriate.
•Speak the language to them often. This is a no-brainer as children learn what they hear so the more you speak to them the more they learn. If you are in an inter-tribal marriage teach the one you can speak. I have seen many women struggle to teach their child their father’s language and in the end the child doesn’t learn either language, both parents should take it upon themselves to teach their child both their languages rather than insist on only one.
• Immerse them through visits to places where the language is spoken. Immersion is the quickest way to learn, just spend a week in Spain and you will too will be saying “Buenos días” . In the same vein if you spend one week in Monguno in Borno State as you will pick up some Kanuri and Hausa. However, immersion involves not just visiting a place but actually experiencing it, so visits to the market , moving round with local transport etc. are ways to ensure the visits are productive.
So my question to you as I asked in this post (make sure you read the comments) written years ago is how well do your children speak their mother tongue and what are you doing to ensure they at least understand ?
*a person who understands and is able to converse in several languages